South by Southwest on a Shoestring: A Diary

The Flatlanders

End of Starsailor Digression Part One

The rest of the second night is my longest continual rock stint at South by Southwest. After the Feds, Ok Go, Ed Harcourt and Starsailor (who are as should be clear by now the darlings of a certain echelon of SXSW), I see: The Flatlanders, Slobberbone, Holly Golightly (who is wearing a Country Teasers shirt, hooray!), Luna, the guy who used to be Half Japanese, and an actually Japanese psychedelic noise band called Acid Mothers Temple.

The Flatlanders are mellow, fluid, heartfelt honky-tonk. Their silver haired lead singer (though he traded songs with another member) has a face like a hawk and one of the most razor-edged tenors I’ve heard since Willie Nelson. Members of this band have been off doing their various things for years now; the Flatlanders haven’t played a show together for quite some time. You can hear their excitement, camaraderie, and just the years of playing together, the easy and fluid communication. They fill the outdoor courtyard of the Club de Ville with effortless and moving music. This is probably the only show I saw at SXSW where the audience is largely silent, listening.

Slobberbone…well, okay. I know a lot of people like them a lot, and they give a good performance of their brand of roots rock (with an emphasis on the rock). However, I will cite my Local Friend, who during this show makes a most astute comment: “This band is what people like if they’ve never listened to The Flying Burrito Brothers.” I’m not saying yes, I’m not saying no. SXSW overflows with ersatz folkiness and shallow roots. Slobberbone gives a flashy performance, but it lacks the Flatlanders heart, which they share with much less seeming effort (or at least a lot less sweating and writhing around).

I’m a big Luna and Galaxie 500 fan, but they give the worst performance of the evening, adding muffed guitar solos to their typically monochromatic performance. I don’t mind a certain stoicism, but what happened, why can’t Dean Wareham play anymore? They do have a new bass player, a very cute woman with long blonde hair and a perfected deadpan expression (required for admission into Luna, apparently). Holly Golightly is a delightful discovery, all British and wry but pulling some lovely twang out of her six-string, and, as mentioned before, wearing a Country Teasers tee shirt. The Country Teasers are a sort of bar band who are Scottish and play country music, usually while intoxicated. Of course, those who have listened to her albums will know that Holly has only recently got on the twang bandwagon, but unlike so many others, she does it with flair and genuine feeling (and she likes the Teasers! That’s so cool!).

At both the Holly Golightly and the Luna shows, I am struck by how difficult it must be to impress a SXSW audience. I’d say a good half of us has press passes or other, even more special badges (there is in fact a “Platinum Lounge” in the Convention Center for those so anointed)– which meant we don’t have to pay covers. People drift from show to show; they gab to each other in the audience and on the phone, and they don’t have even the minimal stake in a performance that slapping down a ten-dollar cover ensures. A crowd of critics just isn’t as welcoming as a crowd of fans who have waited in line and then paid to see you.

Add to that the fact that everyone at SXSW is kept to a strict 45 minute set– which unlike usual start times for shows is strictly observed, so that people can plan their evenings and so all the bands have a chance to play. Holly responds by heckling the sound board, who has apparently threatened to pull the plug. Luna responds by playing like shit.

Starsailor Digression, Part II

In a setup like this, you can see what a big deal it is to play as many shows as Starsailor played at SXSW. The Thursday show they played was already their second, and they had invited me to a third. That’s a lot of airtime in a tightly jammed bandwidth.

A neighboring occupant of the wooden equipment box thing at the Neil Finn party suggested (well actually yelled directly into my ear) that SXSW had succumbed to payola. The majors pay the SXSW steering committee (or whoever it is) to feature bands like Starsailor two and three times. Meanwhile, thousands of unsigned or indie bands fight for far fewer slots.

All of which makes good old SXSW something like a radio program or a segment on MTV: a sort of long playing pitch for their particular idea of good taste. Whether you like Starsailor or not they’re on all the time, you may as well learn to like them. It takes a little bit of struggle to recognize this for what it is, because the smorgasbord of choices makes SXSW seem like a nightmare for those with commitment problems. There were several bands — the Mouldy Peaches, the Sleepwalkers, DB Harris — who I missed because I simply had to choose between two things. With Starsailor or Neil Finn, there was no need to worry because there were multiple offerings: the choice would come up again.

On the other hand if you consider the money it must take to pull something like that off, and consider it’s being charged to the future earnings of four very scruffy and apparently under educated boys from Manchester, it starts to look like a mixed blessing to actually be Starsailor. The record companies can afford to lose a little, and stand to recoup a lot. Starsailor themselves are only rich insofar as they’ve gotten into a debt that far outweighs their current means. At this point, I’m kind of hoping the record sells.

>> End of Starsailor Digression Part Two